Pişmaniye: Turkish cotton candy

Light and fun, pişmaniye is one of the most addictive confections in Turkish cuisine.

Piled in heaps like mesh-wire or rolled into snowball-sized spheres, pişmaniye typically comes in ready-made gift packages, ubiquitous at inter-city bus stations. It is hair-thin threads of candy tossed in a mix of roasted flour and melted butter, ending in a feathery light confection that is fun to eat. Pişmaniye, or its Ottoman period variations peşmek or peşmani, derives from the Persian word pashm, meaning wool (think pashmina scarves), which pays homage to its look. A common misconception is that the name is derived from pişman (regretful), given the vast amount of melt-in-your-mouth pişmaniye one can consume at a time.

Multicultural connections

Pişmaniye was widely popular in the region as early as the 1430s, as recorded in Şirvani’s recipe manuscripts, one of the first records of Ottoman cuisine. Still, the dish and its variants cover a vast expanse of geography from the Balkans to China. For example, in Bulgaria, it is known as ćetenija or, in reference with its once-popular name in Ottoman times, keten helva, literally meaning “linen sweet.”

The sweet confection isn’t limited to Europe, stretching all the way to China, where it is known as dragon’s beard candy. A slight variation from the Turkish version, dragon’s beard candy is made with rice flour in lieu of wheat flour and is more candy-like in that it lacks butter. China’s neighbors, India, also have their own variant called soan papdi, which is made with ghee and has a coarser yet flaky texture than that of the Iranian or Turkish versions. In India, it is classically flavored with rose or saffron, like in Iran, with various fruit flavors added in contemporary times. In Turkey, only a pale cacao added version exits, which surprisingly does not taste chocolaty at all and produces a slightly brownish color. Flakes of pistachio are also sometimes incorporated within strands of the confection when rolled into spherical portions.

A jolly toil

The technique of making pişmaniye is quite complicated and requires patience, experience, and hours of toil pulling and stretching the candy. Despite the skill needed, it can be made at home with the help of the good company. It was customary to make it during the long winter nights, gathering in a home with relatives and neighbors, preparing it with shared labor, singing, exchanging jokes, riddles, and storytelling. The cozy atmosphere of a warm room packed with jolly people was all one needed, as the hours passed easily as pişmaniye got ready to be devoured by all. Such winter night gatherings were called helva sohbeti (helva conversation), made much easier with the lack of television and cell phones in that era.

To begin this jolly toil, it is critical that you have a pretty dense but malleable sugar paste. Once the sugar is boiled, it will reach a thick, hard ball stage, ready to be spread onto a marble counter or a metal tray. Then, stretch the sugar paste multiple times, first by simple folding, then by stretching it longer and longer, making twists and eights as if making a pretzel shape. This is a very tough task, made especially difficult when you think about the fact that the sugar is still warm to the touch. The sugar mass is then shaped into a ring and pulled, stretched, and folded until it turns white and satiny.

çekme helva

Meanwhile, roast wheat flour over slow heat—taking care not to change its color—toss it with melted or clarified butter, and further stir over low heat for nearly an hour, producing a rather dry yet mealy state. Once the pulled sugar ring is ready, place it on a huge round tray containing the mealy butter-flour mix and sprinkle it with more flour mix. Now the fun starts!

Gather around the tray (or around the low table) with at least four friends or family and start squeezing and pulling the sugar ring, simultaneously moving it in circular moves as if passing it to the next person in order to coat all the sugar coils with the buttery flour. Once the ring makes a full tour, it is then folded into an eight, and the process is repeated at least ten times or more. Some sources say that at least forty times are required for a very fine pişmaniye. Each time the sugar ring is folded and tossed in the flour, the finer the sugar strands become, and voila, the whole thing starts to fall like a million fine coils. It is hard to describe, but one completely understands the logic of the technique after seeing it being made for the first time. It is reminiscent of Chinese pulled noodle making. Once the pişmaniye is ready, it is best enjoyed by pulling it off in strands.

Turkey regional variants of pişmaniye

In Turkey, regional variants can come in different forms. In Kastamonu, it is very fine, pressed and cut into small squares and called çekme helva, meaning pulled sweet. Mudurnu is famous for a bigger variation cut into diamond-shaped lozenges, called saray helvası, named after the royal court. Eskişehir has a finger-shaped version that looks like small sticks, which is called met helva